CEPA LIVE: Putin marches on Ukraine
The Russian President’s idiosyncratic reinterpretation of the past is a threat not only to Ukraine but also to the world order.
In his hour-long “1984-style” speech, Vladimir Putin effectively took on the role of sole arbiter and, ultimately, re-creator of history and unifier of Russia’s “lost lands.” , whose historic mandate is to repair the wrongs inflicted, according to him, on Russia during the last century.
Putin’s list of villains is long: short-sighted politicians in Russia itself, nefarious actors in the West, and above all, by the Ukrainian nation and its leaders, through their continued attempts to regain their independence from Russia and opposing Russia’s imperialist project in all its forms.
Putin’s obsession with history, as French President Emmanuel Macron reportedly commented after their recent six-hour meeting, was at the center of this speech, as the Kremlin leader took Russia and the world on a tour rambling in its own disturbing perception of the disruptions of history from 1917 to the present day. The speech was mostly about the past, but in this speech Putin showed Ukraine, as well as Russia’s neighbors and the world, what their future would look like if he were successful.
This is not the first time that the Kremlin leader has railed against the injustices he says even some of Russia’s leaders, like Lenin and his Bolsheviks, have inflicted on Russia. At a 2016 academic lecture on Lenin’s legacy, he reportedly intervened to chastise speakers for glorifying the leader of the Bolshevik revolution who built the Soviet system with a constitutionally enshrined right for Soviet republics to leave the Union at will.
These conceptions were opposed by Joseph Stalin although (Putin groaned in his February 21 speech), he did not recreate the Soviet system after taking power, thus leaving nationalists in the Soviet republics, mainly those in Ukraine, with the legal possibility of seceding in the future.
If, prior to the February 21 speech, Putin’s attempts to impose his own view of history might have been seen as a personal quirk aimed only at a domestic audience, his speech now clearly demonstrated that his dangerous obsession with the past has multiple very tangible and direct implications for the current fate of Ukraine and the security architecture of Europe and the global order.
In his words and deeds, Putin is driven by three powerful forces that the entire civilized world had long believed were relegated to the most shameful chapters of the Bloody 20and century. Revisionism, revanchism and irredentism (or revise, avenge and redeem) in political, legal and military terms make up are now the three explicit elements of Putin’s modus operandi. In the grand scheme of things, Putin views the existing international order as fundamentally unjust to Russia and Western-centric, and actively seeks to overhaul it. de jure by undermining its foundations de factostarting by depriving its neighbours, Ukraine in the first place, of the sovereignty it does not believe it possesses or even deserves, being only the separatist provinces of a once unified imperial Russia.
Putin’s revisionist views will push him towards a new confrontation with the West as he seeks to re-establish Russian control over all of Ukraine as his perceived Russian “sphere of influence”, through a combination of land grabs and hybrid pressures on the Ukrainian government. and society. On the ground in eastern Ukraine, that effectively means the end of Minsk and Russia’s return to the pre-2015 status quo of territorial expansionism, unfettered by the thin veneer of quasi-legal Russia to the West.
With its hands untied, and the failure of the “revised” Minsk process by the fact of the announced recognition of the breakaway republics, their potential annexation by Russia in the manner of Crimea (probably via a manipulated referendum) and the overt occupation of their territories by Russia. troops, the Kremlin can move on to the second stage and seek revenge. On a strategic level, the Kremlin will seek to punish the West for allegedly broken promises not to expand NATO eastward, fomenting constant instability in Ukraine from Russian-controlled Donbass, hoping that would deter NATO from ever wanting to allow Ukraine, as well as others, such as Georgia, to join. Putin will also seek revenge by punishing Ukrainian nationalists.
“Now we are going to show you what decommunization really means; why stop here? he said ominously, threatening to deprive Ukraine of all those lands that the Bolsheviks had unjustly granted to it a century ago – a process that started well with Crimea in 2014, but which does not continue. will hardly be limited to the current territories of the current puppet republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, as Putin’s speech made clear.
This would inevitably usher in the third stage – attempts to redeem other “lost territories” – first those of Donbass which Ukraine regained control of in the summer of 2014, but potentially other Ukrainian regions as well, thus resurrecting the late Novorossiya separatist. project.
In his 1984, George Orwell formulated the harmful logic of the manipulation of history by dictatorial regimes: “Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present, controls the past”. If Putin’s aggressive escalation against Ukraine is not condemned and, above all, unchecked in the most decisive moral, legal, economic and military terms by the democratic West, not only will the Kremlin continue to dismantle the Ukrainian state as it sees fit, but other autocratic regimes around the world will inevitably use Putin’s Orwellian model to justify their own land grabs, thus collapsing the international order as we know it.
It is up to democracies to act now, decisively and quickly, lest Putin’s glorified past become the feared future of Ukraine (and, ultimately, the world).
Marc Voyger is a non-resident senior researcher from the Transatlantic Defense and Security Program at the Center for European Analysis. Now, director of the master’s program in global management of the new American University of Kyiv, he was previously Special Advisor for Russian and Eurasian Affairs to the Commanding General of the United States Army in Europe.